KHAO YAI CAMP, Thailand — Brick-red dust hung in the heavy heat of noon: an uncomfortable day in an unpleasant place.
More than 45,000 Cambodian refugees are encamped here, living in small, sweltering tents of sky-blue plastic sheeting. They have been here for more than six weeks now, and only the children show any enthusiasm for camp life.
Khao Yai is a Khmer Rouge camp, one of 12 "evacuation sites" that Thailand has set up for refugees from the Vietnamese offensive against Cambodian resistance bases along the Thai-Cambodian border.
More than 230,000 Cambodians have found sanctuary in the camps since the offensive began in November. Shelter, food and water are provided by the U.N. border relief organization, but it is a difficult existence, particularly for the Khmer Rouge.
"They don't take well to life in an evacuation site," said John Moore, who directs the U.N. program.
The Khmer Rouge, whose brutal Communist regime ruled Cambodia from 1975 until the Vietnamese invasion of December, 1978, seemed nervous at Khao Yai, two miles from the Cambodian border and the Vietnamese. Many of the men in the camp wore the red-and-white-checked scarves of the Khmer Rouge guerrillas; they drew the cloth across their faces when approached.
Mon Nai, a leader of the refugees, disclaimed any connection with Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge military commander.
"He is frightened," an interpreter said.
Khao Yai camp is in an early stage of development. The families here are living in the dirt beneath the blue tents, which spread in seemingly endless ranks across the flat terrain. If the Khmer Rouge stay here, the relief organization will truck in bamboo and thatch for improved shelters, but it is a primitive existence so far.
Smoke from the cooking fires mixes with the gritty dust. Latrines have been dug along the perimeter road, but not all the refugees bother to make the walk from the center of camp.
A high point of the day is the arrival of U.N. tanker trucks that pump water into large metal storage tanks. At least it provides some activity.
Thais Keep Guard
Thai Rangers keep a close guard on the perimeter of Khao Yai. No one leaves, a Thai officer at the camp said, except fighting-age men, who are escorted to the border on a rotation basis to carry on the guerrilla war against the Vietnamese. The Khmer Rouge are not allowed to bring weapons into Thailand. What they do on the Cambodian side of the frontier is their business.
The main problem at Khao Yai, as at the camps of the non-communist resistance groups in Thailand, is inactivity. The men spend their hours listlessly under the tenting. The women at least have cooking and washing to do, and the children play in the dusty passageways between the tents and along the perimeter road. Their toys are simple: a stick, a piece of plastic tubing, a small wagon with flimsy wheels made of tin cans.
At Site 6, a camp of the non-communist Khmer People's National Liberation Front, the toys' wheels are made of sturdier wood. The Cambodians came to Site 6 in mid-November, fleeing the Vietnamese attack on their base at Nong Chan, just inside the Cambodian border opposite the Thai town of Aranyaprathet.
There are 24,000 refugees at Site 6. They live in huts made of bamboo and thatch, with raised bamboo flooring. The camp is crowded but well-maintained.
Classrooms for Children
The camp administrators have cleared an exercise ground where boys do daily calisthenics. There is a badminton court, a building for the women's association and classrooms where the children are taught to read and write the Cambodian language.
There are also guns at Site 6, for camp security, the administrators say. Young guerrillas swell like peacocks when posing with their Chinese assault rifles for correspondents. The girls giggle when the cameras are turned on them. The mood is clearly more upbeat than at Khao Yai, about 50 miles farther south on the border.
Still, there is little for the men of Site 6 to do in the long, hot hours of the day. Some whittle pointed stakes to be planted in guerrilla trenches across the border.
Chea Chhut, the commander of the Khmer Front guerrillas in the region, described the military situation for reporters over a glass of tepid tea in a bamboo gazebo at the camp. He said his men control Nong Cham, the Cambodian base that the refugees at Site 6 fled. The guerrillas there are separated from the Vietnamese by 300 yards and hundreds of land mines, making it difficult for either side to advance, he said.
Raids and Sabotage
Chea Chhut said his forces do not have enough weapons or ammunition to dislodge the Vietnamese in a direct assault but will try to slip behind their lines to attack their supply columns and sabotage their installations.